Katie Couric: What Barbara Walters Made Possible for Women
Every female broadcast journalist working today owes a debt of gratitude to the O.G., Barbara Walters, who died Friday at age 93.
I know I do. Like many girls growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I wanted to be the next Barbara Walters. I never would have become a co-anchor of the “Today” show if it hadn’t been for this trailblazer. Because Barbara was the first, she had to draw the blueprint, construct the house and constantly keep the winds of sexism from knocking it down.
Barbara got into the business when plenty of newsmen joked (sort of) about “getting the broads out of broadcasting.” She fought like hell for everything she got. After working her way up from writer to co-anchor of the “Today” show, she had to wait for the host Frank McGee to ask the first three questions of a studio guest, lest there be any question about who was in charge. When she was named the first female co-anchor of an evening newscast, at ABC, she broke yet another glass ceiling. That didn’t stop the press from calling her “the million dollar baby” for her lucrative contract, nor did it keep her fellow ABC News anchor Harry Reasoner, who reportedly wasn’t thrilled about his colleague’s presence, from looking as if he were sucking on a lemon when she spoke.
Support from her broadcasting brethren was nowhere to be found. But one day, a telegram arrived that said, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” It was from John Wayne.
Not only did she have to constantly prove herself to the network brass; she was mercilessly parodied, especially on “Saturday Night Live.” From Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa to Cheri Oteri’s “This is 20/20,” the comedy bits stung. But they also proved how much of a towering cultural figure she had become.
Plenty of people who watched her took issue with her sometimes unctuous style, evidenced by the urban legend that she asked Katharine Hepburn, if she were a tree, what kind of tree she would be. As Barbara once explained to me, that exchange had been hopelessly misconstrued. Ms. Hepburn had described herselfas feeling like a very strong tree in her old age, to which Barbara replied, “What kind of a tree are you?” — a perfectly appropriate follow-up question. (Ms. Hepburn went on to say she preferred to be an oak, not an elm, so she could avoid Dutch elm disease.)
Barbara did have a knack for asking disarming questions that sometimes made both her subjects and her viewers squirm. At the last minute, she asked Richard Nixon if he was sorry he didn’t burn the Watergate tapes. (He said he was.) She asked Barbra Streisand, “Why didn’t you have your nose fixed?” and Monica Lewinsky if Bill Clinton was a “sensuous, passionate man.” Barbara was fearless about going there — that’s what made her interviews so mesmerizing and ultimately revealing.
Like many high-powered women, she was polarizing. (God forbid she made current events entertaining!) But while Barbara wasn’t for everyone, everyone wanted to talk to Barbara, in the days when access to boldface names required more than logging onto Instagram. Whether it was traveling to Cuba to tussle with Fidel Castro (after which he made her a grilled cheese sandwich), persuading President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to sit down together to discuss Mideast peace, tangoing with Al Pacino or walking arm in arm with a young actress named Julia Roberts, a conversation with Barbara Walters was an event.
When I was competing with her for a big get, I knew I had to gird myself for the battle. I can’t count how many times, much to my chagrin, I got word that a sought-after newsmaker was sitting down for an exclusive interview with Barbara. I was crestfallen when Christopher Reeve, the “Superman” actor who became quadriplegic after an accident, and his wife, Dana — whom I had gotten to know and greatly admired — decided to take part in a prime-time special with Barbara on ABC. But when I watched Barbara tell their story with such compassion and sensitivity, I became too moved and impressed to be disappointed.
On more than one occasion, Barbara told me that I reminded her of her younger self. “Neither of us is particularly glamorous,” she said. (I wasn’t quite sure how to take that.) During my early days at the “Today” show, she was one of my biggest cheerleaders. I once did an impromptu interview with George H.W. Bush, who unexpectedly showed up while Barbara Bush was giving me a live tour of the White House. The next day I received a handwritten note that read, “Dear Katie, You were terrific with Mrs. Bush (you knew far more than she did) and nabbing the president was a real coup. You are so darn good! Bravo! Barbara.” I still have it framed in my office.
She would later get a kick out of my dating life. After meeting John Molner, my now husband, at several social events before we were married, she told him, “Well, it looks like you’re not going anywhere, so I guess I better get to know you.”
Twenty-five years ago, at 68, an age network executives might have thought about putting her out to pasture, Barbara again proved her worth, through sheer grit and ingenuity. With “The View,” she gave five women of varying ages a platform to share their thoughts on everything from politics to pop culture. Meanwhile, her Barbara Walters specials spotlighted marquee names at a time when celebrities were more elusive than they are today.
Barbara created her own good fortune. I think about the last several years she spent in her home on the Upper East Side, full of framed photos and mementos from her extraordinary career. It must have been so hard not to be in the middle of the action.
When I was putting together a book of advice from accomplished people in 2011, Barbara’s contribution was as follows:
“In college, I had a well-known professor whose advice was: ‘Follow your bliss.’ Practical application: Decide what you really would love to do … would do even if you didn’t get paid. (But get paid.) Get a job in that industry or business. Start at any level. Get there first in the morning. Leave last at night. Fetch the coffee. Follow your bliss … but don’t sleep with your boss. You will succeed.”
She could have added, “Don’t take no for an answer.” Barbara never did. And because of her, the generations of working women in journalism and other fields heard “yes” a lot more often. Thank you, Barbara. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Katie Couric is a journalist and author and the founder of Katie Couric Media.
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